WILD ORCHIDS
Festival Theatre, Chichester
Opened 5 June, 2002

What a glorious summer morning, rhapsodized the female protagonist of Wild Orchids in the final act, barely audible above the tattoo of a downpour on the roof of Chichester's Festival Theatre. On press night, the very elements seemed to be commenting on how little the play could compel.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's version of Jean Anouilh's 1939 play Léocadia is a variant on the Pygmalion theme. A young milliner is hired by a wealthy noblewoman because of her resemblance to the duchess's nephew's late beloved Léocadia Gardi, to take part in a precise and ongoing recreation of the couple's three days of supposed bliss before the diva's death; Amanda's refusal to be simply a creature of fantasy wins the obsessive prince over to her own character.

Edward Kemp's production is faithful to Anouilh's notion of comédie-ballet, in which dramatic momentum takes second place to the delight of the creation. A quartet of gypsy musicians led by Helmut Scholz not only plays through the central scene in an artificial night-club (transplanted in its entirety on to the duchess's estate so that the prince can nightly revisit the scene of his past amour) but wanders through the rest of the action, sometimes even accompanying choreographed scene changes.

This is one of the two core problems. The erratic, dreamlike pace is fundamentally at odds with an audience preference for at least some urgency at some points in the tale. The opening scene in particular, with the duchess and servants darting in and out of the drawing room, endlessly delaying the explanation of why Amanda has been all but abducted into this unreality, is a torment not only to the young woman but also to us, even if we grasp the point some time in advance of its formal explanation.

The other drawback is the pair of central performances. Catherine Walker deals well with Amanda's combination of attachment and independence, but in order to fill the Festival Theatre's space and the dilated time the action takes, she is forced to overplay, too frequently giving her voice an edge of shrillness. Andrew Scarborough's prince is likewise bedevilled. He is not airily caught up in his fixation, but retains his native snobbish tactlessness. This is an intelligent view of the character, but cripples the play, as it leaves us unable to understand what this overwrought girl sees in him. The delicacy on which Anouilh relies is fatally undermined.

A phalanx of experienced character actors Timothy Bateson, Roland MacLeod, David Timson take supporting roles; Patricia Routledge as the duchess is her wonted self, right from her first entrance when she casually but finickily repositions a revolving statue. As with some of his previous productions as either director or adaptor, Kemp is precise on details, but at the expense of the impetus on which our continuing amusement also depends.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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